HARRINGTON, Wash. — When a fire breaks out, Fire Chief Scott McGowan is on the call. He’s on the spot when a sewer line breaks and somebody has to fix it. He is in charge of the drinking water plant that serves the 420 people in the small Eastern Washington town.
And he doubles as the wastewater treatment operator, not as glamorous as being fire chief, but it’s part of his job description.
McGowan’s backup at the wastewater plant? Until the city can hire another worker, that would be Mayor Paul Gilliland. He already handles most of the wastewater plant’s paperwork and is studying to earn an operator certification so he can be a full-service mayor.
Harrington is just one of many communities across the Pacific Northwest that is operating on a tight budget and trying not to violate its wastewater pollution permit.
One of the main goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act was to stop “point-source pollution.” That’s the sewage and industrial waste pumped out of pipes and into the nation’s waterways.
To help communities build and upgrade wastewater collection and treatment systems in the years after the Clean Water Act’s passage, the federal government handed out billions of dollars in grants. But most of those federal grants are gone, replaced by loans. At the same time, those federally subsidized municipal wastewater systems have aged.
When wastewater treatment plants fail, the environment takes the hit, and so do the people who want to use public waters for drinking water, food or recreation.
These days, local governments’ budgets won’t cover the improvements needed to control pollution discharges. Many are coping with:
- Aging sewer lines
- Aging or under-capacity wastewater treatment plants
- Proper plant operation and maintenance
- New water quality regulations
- A lack of financial resources
State and federal records show that Washington’s 223 cities racked up more than 1,500 pollution discharge violations in the past two years. Idaho’s 124 cities tallied more than 1,700 in the past three years. Comparable data are not readily available for Oregon, but its 49 largest cities had at least 150 discharge violations during the past three years.
Big city issues
Over the past several decades, metro areas like Portland and Seattle have spent billions of dollars trying to get their sewage under control. Many of their problems have been linked to combined sewer overflows, or CSOs.
The overflows are a function of sewers built decades ago to carry both sewage and stormwater. When heavy rains fall, the sudden surge of water can overpower the system and send raw sewage directly into the surface water. That worked well until about the 1950s, when people decided it wasn’t a good idea to send raw sewage into their rivers and streams.
Fixing CSOs has been an expensive undertaking.
Last year, Portland finished its state-mandated $1.4 billion Big Pipe Project, installing giant underground tunnels that can carry much larger volumes of sewage and stormwater to the city’s wastewater treatment plants.
That doesn’t mean Portland is trouble free. Sometimes clogged sewer pipes cause overflows, too. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality fined Portland $450,000 in 2005 for allowing almost 2 billion gallons of raw sewage to flow into those waters over a five-year period.
Washington’s King County also has been improving its sewage treatment systems and combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. It spent about $2 billion recently to build the Brightwater wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Puget Sound.
The county also has built several treatment plants that handle stormwater. One of them, the Elliott West treatment facility, had some violations, including discharging too much fecal coliform and chlorine — both bad for fish and other aquatic life.
Unlike treatment plants that operate 24/7, the CSO plants power up only during big storms, said Pam Elardo, director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division.
”It’s been very challenging to get it to ramp up, treat and be ready to go on a moments notice for the kind of flows it sees,” she said.
The county is working with Washington’s Department of Ecology to find ways to adjust the system, Elardo said.
Big cities must handle and control more pollution than small communities, but they also have more financial options to build and upgrade their infrastructure.
“One of the bigger challenges we have right now is with small communities, towns of Oregon of 400 to 500 people that have aging infrastructure,” said Dick Pedersen, director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.
These towns are required to upgrade their facilities to meet new Clean Water Act requirements. But most have few options to pay those costs, other than big rate increases, Pedersen said.
Several towns, one river
Along Oregon’s South Umpqua River, several towns have been working to meet new regulations on nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Excess nutrients lead to algae blooms that use up the dissolved oxygen fish and other aquatic life need to live. Some algae also produce toxins that can harm humans and wildlife if they are ingested.
The cities and towns are in varying stages of improving their wastewater treatment systems, said Jon Gasik, an environmental engineer for DEQ.
Riddle and Winston are upgrading their plants. Myrtle Creek and Roseburg have finished their upgrades. Glendale and Canyonville are planning to follow suit.
Roseburg had to look for a creative way to deal with its phosphorus discharge because the cost to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant was estimated at up to $80 million, said Gasik.
Instead of sending its treated wastewater to the river, it began to apply it to land. That took care of the large algae mat that used to be in the river outside Roseburg’s treatment plant, he said.
All the upgrades should have an impact on the South Umpqua River, where water quality varies from very poor to poor.
“In the South Umpqua it will make a big difference. That’s one of the, probably one of the few streams left that the point sources are really impacting the water body,” Gasik said.
Not every community needs to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant. Violations can be the result of poor operation or inadequate maintenance.
Poor plant operations
Those have been the problems for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, in Eastern Oregon, said Chae Park with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The tribes operates two wastewater treatment plants that together they have violated their permits 99 times in the last three years. One plant serves the town community of Warm Springs and the other the Kah-Nee-Tah resort. The two plants discharge into streams that provide spawning and rearing habitat for salmon, steelhead, trout and Pacific lamprey. People use those waters for kayaking, fishing and swimming.
Warm Springs and Kah-Nee-Tah wastewater treatment plant lagoons.
Records show the plants have had violations for total suspended solids, e-coli and biological oxygen demand, or BOD, which lowers the amount of oxygen available for fish and other aquatic life.
“In terms of their effect on the environment, I think there is definitely potential for adverse effects. For example, suspended solids are going to affect the fish. It may clog their gills. And certainly e-coli, that’s a pathogen. That could come in contact with recreational users, swimmers for example,” Park said.
Park says the tribes haves hired a new wastewater operator and more workers to help maintain the plants.
The Warm Springs Tribes did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
Side effects of economic development
The town of Burley, Idaho’s pursuit of new businesses led to its wastewater treatment problems. When the city of 10,000 people couldn’t keep its old plant in compliance, officials knew they had to replace it.
Most residents supported putting in a new plant, said Mark Mitton, the city’s administrator.
So in 1998, the city began the engineering for the projects. It also issued bonds and raised sewer fees from $3.26 per household to $27.50.
It took about nine years to complete the plant, which came online in 2007. By then, the sewer rates had reached $45.50 per household.
“Was it hard on people with fixed incomes? Absolutely,” Mitton said.
But there’s another wastewater treatment plant in Burley’s story.
In 2003, the town inherited a second plant from the J.R. Simplot Co. and began using it to lure new businesses and jobs to the area. That worked. Two milk-processing companies, Gossner Foods and High Desert Milk, have been piping their wastes to the industrial plant. And Gem State Processing, which makes dehydrated potato flakes, also set up business in Burley. The state gave the city a $499,000 block grant to help add infrastructure for Gem State Processing. That included wastewater hookup.
The industrial treatment plant, however, is old and wasn’t built to handle milk waste, said Mary Lou Herbert, the supervisor for both plants. It couldn’t meet the pollution limits of its permit.
To make matters worse, parts of the plant had fallen into disrepair. Water has punched a hole in a wall that is supposed to separate two parts of the system. That has upset the balance of microbes that eat the waste, Herbert said.
The city tried to fix the problem by piping some of the industrial waste to the residential plant. But that backfired, causing both plants to violate their permits and sending too much pollution into the Snake River, which is important to the community for recreation and tourism.
“I get frustrated because I was always raised to meet compliance, and I’ve never been faced with these issues before,” Herbert said. “I mean occasionally anyone can have a whoops because something happened. But ours have been over and above normal.”
Now the town needs to borrow up to $6 million to upgrade the industrial plant, administrator Mitton said.
“It has been a good thing for us, and just like any infrastructure, we’ve got to make an investment in it to bring it back into compliance and mover forward,” Mitton said.
Infiltration and inflows
Several small towns in Eastern Washington have been dealing with a mix of problems and some have been violating their discharge permits.
“We have these declining communities with aging infrastructure and an inability to hang on to good operators…and a population that’s already being hit very heavily, economically,” said Diana Washington, who oversees the state’s water quality in that area.
Some of the towns, including Albion, Ione and St. John, have old wastewater treatment plants. All three towns also are dealing with sewer infiltration and inflow, known as I&I in the wastewater world.
Infiltration occurs when sewer pipes have cracks or holes or their joints have failed, allowing stormwater and groundwater to enter the system. Inflow is surface water entering the system through manhole covers, downspouts or by other routes. The extra water can overwhelm and disrupt the treatment plant.
Credit: King County, Wash.
Garfield also has an older plant that requires an operator with three years of experience. The town has had trouble keeping that position filled and some of its violations are related to operator turnover, Washington said.
The Eastern Washington town of Harrington, where the fire chief is the wastewater treatment plant operator, had to go in debt to build a new plant. The 420-resident town took out loans and still owes $1.5 million, Mayor Paul Gilliland said.
The new plant, which was completed in 2005, has not been trouble free. Breakdowns have led to violations and expenses. And it has operating costs, too, that have driven the monthly sewer fee rate to $65 per household. That’s $25 more than Seattle charges and $5 more than Portland.
“It’s been a burden,” Gilliland said.
Many other communities have received low-interest rate loans, some that originate with state agencies but that are partially bank-rolled by the federal government.
At one time, communities could fund building or improving their wastewater treatment plants with grants they didn’t have to repay. But in 1987, Congress changed the federal grant program to a loan program administered, in most cases, by states. The states add some money and charge interest on the loans to capitalize their programs, called Clean Water State Revolving Funds.
Some state and federal agencies continue to offer limited numbers of grants, but they don’t come close to meeting the needs of communities in the Pacific Northwest.
“Virtually every community must borrow money for upgrades or replacement,” said Rick Watters, a loan program specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
In 2012, the federal government gave states $1.5 billion to use in their loan programs. Oregon’s share was about $16 million, Watters said. The interest rate is 2.5 percent.
Tough economic times, however, can discourage borrowing. Local government bodies like city councils may be hesitant to accept a loan if it means raising sewer rates. Sewer rates become particularly dicey during election years.
In Oregon, officials accept applications for its loans three times a year, but during the last two application cycles not one Oregon city or town applied, Watters said.
The lack of borrowing isn’t a reflection of the wastewater treatment needs.
Every four years states ask communities to report how much money it would take to put their wastewater treatment systems in good working order so they could meet the terms of their pollution permits. They report their findings to Congress.
The latest survey, conducted in 2008, shows that it would take at least $10 billion dollars to meet the wastewater treatment needs in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Regulators know those figures are understated because many communities don’t report their needs. Simply filling out the paperwork for the survey can be a financial burden, especially for small communities. The rules require communities to document their needs with reports, which can include hiring an engineer to study their facilities.
Federal level realities
The federal government recognized the problems small communities were having meeting their wastewater pollution permits long ago. In 1992, the U.S. General Accounting Office reviewed the outcomes of making the federal grant program a revolving loan program. The GAO report concluded that the loan program:
- “will not generate nearly enough funds to close the tremendous gap between wastewater treatment needs and available resources.”
- will pose particular problems for small communities, many of whom cannot repay loans at any interest rate and have difficulty competing with larger communities for loans.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated the gap between future needs and current spending on wastewater infrastructure of $150 billion to $400 billion for the entire country. The same year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation a “D-“ for its wastewater infrastructure.
Congress has considered other funding solutions since then, including setting up a Clean Water Trust Fund.
Most recently, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced a legislation that would create that kind of fund.The Bill, calls for taxes on water-based beverages, water-disposal soaps and toilet tissue, cooking oil, toothpaste, prescription drugs –- lots of products that end up in sewer and wastewater treatment plants.
No one really knows how much it would cost to stop pollution from wastewater and sewage systems. But regulators do know it is still a problem that will require funding and finding less expensive, more innovative ways to manage the sewage flushed from homes and businesses every day.
InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure and EarthFix’s Aaron Kunz and Courtney Flatt contributed to this report.